Parx scores with Pennsylvania Derby, Cotillion Stakes exacta

ASSOCIATED PRESS Will Take Charge , ridden by Luis Saez, wins Pennsylvania Derby.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Will Take Charge , ridden by Luis Saez, wins Pennsylvania Derby.
Posted: September 24, 2013

WHEN PARX management moved the Pennsylvania Derby off Labor Day a few years ago and, then last year raised the purse of its second biggest race, the Cotillion Stakes, and put them both on the same day, they were trying to create an "event." They officially have an event.

Attendance is an irrelevant horse racing statistic in 2013 as 90 percent off all the money is bet away from the race track - online with an account, at an OTB or over the phone. But when you offer something special, you would like to see a big crowd and lots of wagering. They got both Saturday in Parx.

There is no admission or parking fee at the track so getting an accurate head count is impossible, but the joint was quite crowded. And nearly $5 million was bet at the track and around the country on the 12-race card with $3 million in purses, anchored by the $1 million Cotillion and $1 million Pennsylvania Derby.

Not only was it an event, the results were perfect for the future. When your biggest race is won for the first time by a Travers winner trained by the man with the most accomplished resume in the history of the sport, it gives it some juice. And when your only Grade I race is won by a Grade I winner, trained and ridden by Hall of Famers, you also get some juice for today, 2014 and years into the future.

D. Wayne Lukas, the man who has won more Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races than anyone, had won just about every Derby in America, except the one in Pennsylvania. Check that off the list.

Last week, Lukas described Travers winner Will Take Charge as "like that freshman basketball player. You know he's going to be 6-11. You better work with him because he's going to be the one when he is a senior."

Will Take Charge was beaten by a combined 45 lengths in the Triple Crown races. The big colt is now a senior. He is the one.

Will Take Charge actually appeared to be struggling a bit on the far turn of the Pa. Derby. Then, jockey Luis Saez steered him to a hole on the rail and the horse accelerated instantly going from fifth to first in about 50 yards. Unlike the Travers when he needed the entire stretch to catch front-running Moreno, Will Take Charge had the race won by the eighth pole. It was 2 1/4 lengths at the wire. Moreno held second over longshot Battier.

"I think we turned the corner on a big gangly horse . . . " Lukas said. "He's getting that explosive kick that you want to see. I would be surprised if the best isn't in front of him."

Immediately in front of Will Take Charge is the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 2. If the Pa. Derby winner could win the Classic, he would be named 3-year-old champion and give Parx' most important race serious national respect.

The Classic, with a strong group of older horses, varied running styles and the brilliant Game On Dude waiting for the competition at his home track, is shaping up as the year's most difficult race. Will Take Charge's competition for the 3-year-old championship, Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, run Saturday at Belmont Park.

"Historically, the 3-year-olds have done good in the Classic," Lukas said hopefully.

The Pa. Derby win settled a semi-score. Will Take Charge has caught the speedy Moreno in all three of their summer races, two at Saratoga, one at Parx. A few days after the Travers, Moreno's trainer Eric Guillot accused Saez of using an illegal electrical device, based on a postrace video that was subject to many interpretations.

New York officials are supposedly conducting some kind of an investigation, but, 30 days since the Travers, have said nothing.

"It's been over from Day 1," Lukas said. "It never started. The problem is when you make irresponsible comments like that they're interpreted a gillion ways. The facts are there's nothing there and time will show that. New York is going to eventually get to it. They do everything quite slowly. I put it aside right away."

There was not much confusion about the Pa. Derby result. Will Take Charge was favored for the first time in his career and ran like a horse that is not done winning.

A half hour before the Pa. Derby, favored Close Hatches, trained by Bill Mott and ridden by Mike Smith, ran down unbeaten Sweet Lulu and pulled away in the stretch for a 2-length win. Smith, sensing the pace was too slow, asked his filly to get into the race on the backstretch and she started to put pressure on Sweet Lulu.

Smith, 48, picks his spots these days. Mostly, he picks the big spots. The Cotillion was just his 55th win of the year, but, incredibly, those mounts, which include Game On Dude, the brilliant mare Royal Delta (also trained by Mott) and Palace Malice, have won $9.2 million. Add Close Hatches, winner in five of seven starts, to Smith's roster of stars.

Add Will Take Charge and Close Hatches to the history of the Pa. Derby and Cotillion, which had a nice but not overwhelming list of winners. That is changing.

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